‘Veronica Mars’ as a Template: Another Look at the Steubenville Rape Case

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The television show Veronica Mars depicted a situation which was eerily similar to what happened in the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. The reason fiction was able to predict reality is that these situations are all too familiar.

Veronica Mars is one of my favorite television shows. It featured the titular Veronica as a teenage sleuth of sorts, one who overcame a lot of hurdles in order to accomplish her goals. The television show, which ran from 2004 to 2007, was not as popular with the general public as it should have been, but it did develop a core fan base. These fans have never given up hope of getting a Veronica Mars movie, so when creator Rob Thomas and star Kristin Bell started a Kickstarter project recently, the fans showed up. Thus far, they have pledged over $3.5 million and the deadline is still days away.

There are many reasons to be a Veronica Mars fan but one of the major ones is that Veronica is such a nuanced character. In the course of one year, she went from an innocent and popular girl to a jaded and damaged outcast. As the pilot episode makes clear, her transformation was the result of a lot of things, including the fact that she was raped at an underage party. Veronica attended the party alone, determined to show that life wasn’t going to get her down, but instead was drugged and raped. Despite the party being full of people, no one stepped in to help and she woke up the next morning uncertain about what had occurred. Veronica contacted the sheriff to report her rape but he not only didn’t believe her, he even went so far as to blame her for what had happened. Since she doesn’t remember, part of Veronica’s quest in the first season involves finding out exactly what occurred, which meant talking to a number of witnesses and watching a video taken at the party. Along the way, Veronica has to endure the myriad accusations of being too sexually available even though that was not truly the case.

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Does any of that sound familiar? It should because, even though that fictional scene was shot years ago, it is eerily prescient of what happened in Steubenville, Ohio last summer.

At an underage party in August 2012, at least two football players (Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond) raped, urinated on and took a video and pictures of a 16-year-old girl who was unconscious. The girl was not from Steubenville but was known to them. Some people claim that her ex-boyfriend was angry at her and wanted revenge, so it’s possible that she was seen as an outcast. It’s also possible that she was drugged. But whatever the reason she was at the party alone, or however she came to be incapacitated, the main point is that when she clearly needed help, not a single person intervened. They even went so far as to publicize the event through Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and texting. The next morning, the girl woke up not knowing what happened. She found out only through talking with friends and seeing the social media sites in which people talked about and posted pictures of her at that party. She and her family went to the police but opposition from the community was fierce. Many blamed the victim for what happened by attacking her personal character. As you can tell, the similarities to Veronica’s situation are disturbing.

Nothing much might have come of the police investigation in Steubenville (which is all too typical in rape cases) had the case not received publicity from a blogger who accused the community of siding with the rapists, and from Anonymous, a hacker collectivist group. Both created enough outrage about the case that the legal community had to do something. Consequently, a court recently convicted both Richmond and Mays of rape. Mays was also found guilty of dissemination of child pornography. But the others, who possibly participated but definitely stood idly by and did nothing (failing to report a crime is a crime), received no penalty.

There are a host of problems with what happened that night. The big one, of course, is that there are plenty of people out there who do not see rape as a crime and view boys’ sexual access to women — in whatever capacity — as their right. This is especially prevalent in the jock culture that abounds in many schools. That was the attitude I encountered when I did rape outreach programs with athletes, and you also can see it in a lot of the comments following the news stories on the case. One commenter actually wondered, “Why are we punishing the boys for partying?”

Another problem rests with the depersonalization that occurred that night, both in the perpetrators and the bystanders. The term depersonalization has several definitions and both are in play in this situation. The perpetrators depersonalized the victim. In being able to do what they did, they deprived the victim of her personal qualities and individuality. She became a thing, not a person, so it didn’t matter what they did to her. Similarly, the bystanders also experienced depersonalization in that they lost their own sense of personal identity and became more like anonymous cogs in an impersonal social machine. It is this minimal sense of personal responsibility, of doing things when part of a group that you normally would not do, that often occurs at parties. The roar of the crowd drowns out the voice of reason, morality and empathy. Thus, the bystanders were able to ignore what was happening to another person right in front of them.

The final problem is this: how is it that Veronica Mars, a fictional character, experienced eight years ago almost exactly the same events as a 16-year-old girl did in Steubenville, Ohio last August? The answer, sadly, is that this type of thing occurs all too often. There is enough repetition to rape cases that a writer was able to craft a fictional event based entirely on reality. Sadly, what was unusual in the Ohio case is not what happened to the victim, but that the boys responsible actually suffered some consequences for what they did.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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